Which Is Better – Digital Cable Or Satellite?

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Digital cable or satellite – that’s the question many families face when they move to a new home. Fifty years ago the decision wasn’t so tough. All you did was stick an antenna up on your roof, spend a few days twisting it back and forth until you got the best picture on the most stations – then you settled back to enjoy television. If you were lucky, you got the three networks and maybe an educational channel.

Usually, if there were trees near your house, or buildings, or birds that flew between you and the stations’ towers, the picture was passable, filled with “ghosts” and static. Forget it if you were wanting to watch sharp “color TV.”

Which Is Better - Digital Cable Or Satellite?
Which Is Better – Digital Cable Or Satellite?
Today your options include digital, cable or satellite television. Soon streaming content from the Internet will be available on your tablet, PC or even your big screen. Ah, the luxury of having so many choices.

Until we reach that point, which selection makes the best sense … and cents?

What Are The Differences?

Most people know the distinctions between digital, cable and satellite television, but let’s review for a brief moment.

Digital Television

This replaced traditional “over the air” television in 2009. These are the channels designated as “5.1” or “11.2.” Rulings by the FCC forced abandonment of the analog system then. Viewers who did not have sets designed to receive the new signals purchased those $40 converters (with the rabbit ears or circle antennae) and soon discovered many stations now were offering “sub channels” of programming not available on cable or satellite services.

While not flourishing, this system is still operating, though technical limitations keep it from being the primary means of tele-viewing. Other than the roof-top antenna, and stringing the wire from it to your sets, there’s nothing physical affecting your house.

Cable Television

Originally thought of a “pay TvT” and “community antenna TV,” the nanotechnology blossomed in the 1960’s. Your television is “hardwired” into a network providing you video signals it receives from a central “head-in” station. Its major players are dwindling as mergers take place, but you will recognize Time-Warner, Comcast, Xfinity, U-Verse, and Charter Communications and there are many smaller operations around the country.

Even when they come to do the installation, they’ll likely drill a hole in a wall to bring the wiring in. It used to be other sets either had to have converter boxes or be tied to the central box. “WiFi  is replacing that inconvenience. Oh, and don’t forget that if you move or terminate their service, you’ll be hit with a whopping bill if you don’t return the boxes to them in a timely fashion.

Satellite

These companies – DISH and Direct-TV are dominant – outfit your residence with a reception dish bringing programming from its circling satellites. Technology has expanded so they now are beginning to offer some forms of “on demand” programming. Reception is hampered by severe weather (rain and hail are the usual culprits but swaying trees in windstorms occasionally can be a problem).

But the delivered pictures are high definition and the audio is static-free – almost Dolby in quality. What was said about cable installation goes the same for satellite, except you may not have to return the equipment to them; disposing of it will be your problem.

Now the question is which is better? And making that determination is very subjective, because what may be important to you might not be a major issue with someone else. The best we can do is lay out some of the basic objections and then you decide. It may take a little experimenting – a little “sampling” – to ultimately reach the best selection for your tastes.

The Basic Points To Consider

Pricing – It’s beginning to level out. For a time cable was much cheaper than satellite, but now cable systems are adding “extras” and increasing the number of channels they carry, and the cost has risen. Since both providers package their programming in “tiers,” you’ll need to study carefully what the line-ups are. In most instances, the companies will encourage “upgrades” (moving to a higher tier) but will penalize you if you change your mind and want to drop back a level.

Cable systems can give you price breaks if you “bundle” the television service with phone and internet and now DISH Network is offering a discount if you add internet to the television service. Verizon now offers a “triple-play” of voice, internet, and TV. The best way to determine if these are any good for you is to compute your current a la carte cost.

Ask if the equipment being installed is leased, or if you own it. And the converter boxes also are extra charges.

Of course, digital TV is free, except for the initial expense of the converter box and antenna. Best reception is achieved with a roof-top aerial – rabbit ears just can’t bring in the signals inside your house.

You can get the monthly charges locked in via contracts, but the trend for both cable and satellite is for incremental increases.

Availability – It’s getting to be universal, though municipalities often control your choices for cable through geographic franchises they sell to the carriers. It could be possible for one side of your street to have Comcast the other side have Charter Communications. You’ll need to check that out before you can count on any price quotes.

There aren’t any restrictions on which satellite system you use. Recent attempts by home owner associations to restrict the placement of the dishes have been knocked down by court decisions. The real problem you may face is physical barriers, such as trees or tall buildings. At one time each company had placed their “birds” at different locations in the heavens, but now they’ve got secondary signals matching each other so obstructions shouldn’t affect your selection. Just be certain the technician (usually a subcontractor working for the provider) knows what they are doing and sets the dish up for optimum reception.

Digital TV is wide open. Again, an outdoor aerial does best, and you may have to use a rotary system. The signals are almost “line-of sight” but if there had been an “over the air” station in your town, there will be digital TV.

Content

One of the early attractions of satellite was the offering of programming you couldn’t get on cable. That, too, has gradually, and for the most part, died away. (But did you know “C-SPAN” stands for “Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network?” It’s been available on both since it began.) Bandwidth capacity has also helped cable expand the number of channels they can offer, so there is very little programming exclusive to either cable or satellite.

Cable systems are required to carry your local channels and some channels are, by law, made available for “public access,” meaning local governments can use them to broadcast their information and meetings. And anyone who has the guts to do so can produce their own show at the cable system’s studios for those channels for nothing (but they can’t be commercial enterprises; just religion, talk or entertainment). What these “public access programs” lack in quality they make up for in unintentional entertainment.

The premium movie packages are the same for both. Cable has begun introducing “video on demand,” instant playback to your home of certain programs. There generally is a charge, but satellites have literally hundreds of movie channels with start times staggered so it is practically “on demand.”

Digital stations, theoretically, can offer an infinite number of “sub-channels” and there are now springing up program producers of content just for them. The Justice Channel, a brainchild of John Walsh (of America’s Most Wanted fame) is one of them. There are a number of Hispanic networks as well. MOVIES! is another, and is a mixture of classic and contemporary films. Check your local newspaper listings to see what’s out there.

Technical quality

It is all going to depend on what’s hooked up in your house. Both cable and satellites transmit “high definition” (“HD”) signals, and getting an improved picture is the whole point of digital TV.

The converter boxes are increasingly becoming more sophisticated, offering features to control your set and your shows. DVR built into the converter boxes for both satellite and cable make “time-shifting” easier. So are parental controls that let you block shows not appropriate for your children.

And The Negatives?

“LOS,” loss of signal, is the biggest complaint of customers, both satellite and cable. Since the cable company depends on electrical service to get its product to you, any wide-spread power outrage is going to interrupt things. Once power is back on, it shouldn’t take too long for things to return to normal. Keep in mind those power outages can be brought about by a tree falling on a power or cable wire, or a car crashing into a pole.

Yes, satellite also needs electricity to drive its equipment, but as long as you have your lights, you’ll have satellite signals – unless, there is a major weather disturbance. If a big “mother of all thunderstorms” settles in over the central reception “dish farm” in your area, you’re going to have a “complete loss of signal.” It’s only going to last as long as the bad weather is there, so the duration will not be as long as the repair of transmission lines for cable systems. Snow can be the same kind of disruption as rain.

There’s an additional threat of snow for satellite customers. If the white stuff accumulates in the dish or if the dish gets coated in solid ice, you’ll lose your signal. The only solution is to climb up on the roof and melt the ice and dispose of the snow.

Heavy winds that get the surrounding trees swaying can block out satellite signals. There is less likelihood of high winds and tree sway causing problems for cable.

There you have it, a balance sheet that’s pretty even with the pluses and minuses, so you’ll have to ask around of your neighbors. Whichever you choose, you’re going to constantly be second guessing yourself for years to come.

Which do you have, cable or satellite? “Customer No Service” has been a major sticking point for both industries. Do you have any ‘horror stories” of your own you could share with us? Have you ever regretted your choice and found it just not fiscally feasible to make the change?

( Photo by Elizabeth/Table4Five )

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7 Responses to Which Is Better – Digital Cable Or Satellite?

  1. We don’t even have the option of cable since we live out in the country. What is cool, is that we always seem to have something recorded on dvr so if we lose service we can just play what is recorded! Many people don’t know that. It works out well for us.

  2. Hi Pyper – I also think that if you don’t have cable, or it isn’t very good, you get used to not having it. It sounds like you’ve figured out a way to work around the limitations of the local system.

  3. I gave up the cable about 10 years ago. Still have the over the air digital though. I just don’t watch enough to justify the cost. May change as I age and slow down. I know my parents have the full-tilt cable package at over a hundred dollars a month, but they have it on all the time, usually 3 sets going at once!

  4. I cut cable and don’t really miss it. I do just fine with just CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, UPN and PBS and their extended channels. We have a digital TV and a digital antennae. We have a DVD and a VHS player.
    I got tired of paying for umpteen channels of mostly ‘reality’ tv and old movies. I have Amazon Prime and often watch movies/tv over the computer. I occasionally do Hulu, Netflix or Redbox.
    If I move to the country, I guess I’ll have to pony up for satellite or dish.
    We do a package of phone and Wi-Fi Internet through Comcast.
    I just ordered an Amazon Fire Stick on that Prime Day sale. I might get a Google Chromecast stick as well. Costco seems to have the best price on that item.
    I just got a new-to-me refurbished computer from Tiger Direct and it works wonderfully. I attached speakers from an old computer that used to run Win98SE and those speakers work like a charm! My next upgrade will probably be some sort of a smartphone, if I can find one that doesn’t cost as much as a mortgage payment and isn’t on a plan that requires a contract or a monthly fee as high as my previous cable bill.

  5. Hi Rick – You may never need anything close to a full package for TV. It’s mostly a habit, and one that you don’t seem to have. Good on you, because it’s mostly a time waster/filler. There are so many more productive things you can do with your time and your life. Your parents are probably like the majority of people who are addicted to TV, and “need” the full package. I find myself watching less and less TV as I get older, which is probably the exact opposite of what most people do.

  6. You’ve got the TV thing under control Mel. I’ve been wanting to do something similar, but my wife still likes the full suite of TV options. We already have Hulu and Netflix, thanks to my son, and more videos and DVDs than we ever watch. Like you, I can’t stand paying for 200 channels, out of which maybe 20 are even remotely interesting. Now if I could only get my wife on board…

  7. I agree with Kevin. I’ve gotten used to no cable. I do have a digital antenna, though, so I can watch news on NBC, CBS, etc. But if I had to choose between cable and satellite, I’d try satellite; it’s typically less expensive than cable.

    As Bill mentions, though, there’s a risk of “snow” with satellite. I’ve heard digital cable is the clearest.

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